In keeping with my Black History Month theme, and my own reflections about when I first began to understand the significance of race and race relations in America, I decided to compare my thoughts and realizations with those of some of my white friends. No discussion on race and race relations can be complete if it is one-sided, and I think that many people understand that most feelings about race and relations are taught and/or learned, whether directly or indirectly.
Of course, I also understand that there are many more races than just Black and white, but I think that for much of American history that struggle has been a predominant one. Also, for right now, mainly for simplicity purposes, I didn’t interview all of my friends of other races. I was curious about whether and how white families talk to their children about race relations and racism, and thankfully, a few of my friends were brave, gracious, and open enough to share their thoughts and recollections with me.
Interestingly, one of my friends was around the same age that I was–six or seven–when she first realized that she was white. Like me, she also realized it after reading a book. “I was reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and my mom sat me down to have a conversation with me about the book,” my friend told me. “[My mom] was very serious, and she [told me], ‘there is one word in that book that is very, very bad, and I never want you to say it to anyone, ever. You would get in a lot of trouble if you said it at school.'”
My friend’s mom wouldn’t tell her what the word was, only that it “start[ed] with an ‘n'” and my friend eventually figured it out. She had grown up in a predominantly white and middle-class neighborhood and gone to school with mostly white children. Before that time, her primary interactions with kids of other races came through friends of her parents or participation in local sports organizations. She remembers being confused by the sudden warning that “there were ways to talk about race that were wrong and offensive.” Just as I had in the moment before I looked at the back of my hand after reading the Martin Luther King book, she had previously viewed race as “something that existed in a neutral sense,” but not something that was “capable of having good or bad connotations.”
She said her parents had always taught her and her sister to “treat others as we wanted to be treated, not to judge anyone for being different, and not to make fun of anyone for any reason.” She remembers her parents always having a visible distaste for excessive wealth and injustice, avoiding membership at country clubs that had refused to admit African Americans until forced to do so in the early 1990s and ridiculing “elite social scene” events. While she doesn’t remember “many direct conversations about race” as a child, they did have discussions about privilege, “but usually privilege in an economic sense.”
Also like me, as my friend got older she began to be more cognizant of racial tensions. She recalled that the few African American students in her middle school tended to eat lunch together in a section of the cafeteria that her classmates nicknamed “Little Africa.” She explained that such comments made her “uncomfortable” and “didn’t mesh with the values [her] parents had taught [her].”
Another incident took place in high school when a group of students in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program that she was in (which was only about 10% African American) decided to dress up “in baggy jeans, white t-shirts, gold chains, and other “ghetto outfits” to mimic the students on the “traditional” academic track after the traditional students dressed up like “nerds.” She said that while she “knew that this episode highlighted some of the tensions at the school between different groups of students,” she “did not give it much critical thought” at the time.
“I thought that it was enough that I was in an environment that was diverse, and even if there were racial tensions within that environment, I was doing my part to broaden my horizons by simply existing in a space different than the one I had grown up in,” she said. “Now I wish I had talked to some of the traditional students about what this high school was like from their perspective, but at the time I didn’t feel like I knew how to do that.”
She says that it was not until she got to college that she “learned that [she] could listen to and participate in conversations about race. She says that that “small step has helped [her] learn more and confront [her] own misconceptions more, because [she] can have honest conversations with people and push [herself] to look critically at [her] own ways of thinking.
Another friend of mine said that if there was a distinct moment when he realized that he was white, he was “too young to remember.” His parents were Italian immigrants who came to the United States in the 1980s and “continue[d] to identify as Italians as opposed to Americans or whites.” He also grew up in an Italian immigrant community and spoke Italian at home.
He admits that both of his parents “didn’t like Black folks” when he was growing up. He remembers his mother telling him not to date Black girls when he was in elementary school and not having a reason when he inquired about why. He said his father had also been robbed at gunpoint by a Black person shortly after he arrived in the United States. As a result, his father tended to avoid Black people.
He says he was fortunate to have good teachers who “tore apart racist ideas.” He describes himself as being “pretty outspoken about race” from a young age, arguing with his parents about it whenever they said racist things, and he has continued to do so with other people because he thinks it’s important. More than the significance of race per se, he believes that “historical modes of economic relations over-determine our individual social relations.”
My friends’ recollections about what they were taught and have learned about race has helped me to realize a few things:
1. The importance of media, education, and communication. If you’ve ever read this blog, you know that I love to rattle on and on about media and the critical messages that we consume and that others send. I think that it is much more than an interesting coincidence that my friend and I both became aware of the significance of race at around the same age by reading books. Fortunately, we were becoming aware of our differences in a somewhat more “intellectual” medium where it was presented in an already edited and filtered way that was designed to be broken down further and discussed, but I cannot help but to think about the children who are formulating ideas about race and race relations through television, music, and other forms of media that are not being monitored or discussed.
I also found it interesting that, at least based on what they told me, neither one of my friends’ parents really delved into reasons or explanations for warnings and/or opinions about race or race relations. For example, while my friend described her mom’s attempt to prepare her for the upcoming appearance of the “n” word in Huckleberry Finn and told her that she could “get in trouble” if she used it, she did not explain why the word was problematic or the history of the word. Granted, she might have done so at a later time, but I am always curious about the way in which white children are taught about history and race relations.
As I mentioned in my previous post, images and stories about Black leaders and history were prominent in my household growing up. Before I even understood the negative connotations of Blackness, I knew the positive ones. It was almost as if my parents were building me up before society could attempt to tear me down in any way. They were compensating for the gaps that they knew would be missing from my schooling, but which they knew would be crucial to my complete life education. When it comes to white children, we know that Martin Luther King gets a lot of attention in schools, but who and what else does? And what role does that play in shaping how white people grow up understanding racial tensions and race relations?
2. The importance of engagement and not just exposure. Just as my friend quickly learned that it was not enough to just be in a diverse school and do her part to be exposed to people of other races, people of other races cannot just exist in one another’s midst without truly engaging with one another. We can’t learn from one another that way. Impoliteness is not acceptable, but fear and political correctness helps no one. As my friend noted, we have to call one another out when we see and hear things that are wrong. As a Black person who has attended schools where I have been both the majority and the minority, I know that it not enough to just be present, we have to interact. That is the only way we come to truly understand one another and to challenge stereotypes.
3. My own generally monolithic views of whiteness. While I am very aware of the vastness of and the differences among the Black Diaspora, I tend to think of white people as one cultural entity. I was surprised to realize that when my friend explained that his parents were Italian immigrants. I never think of “whiteness,” whatever that is, as being composed of different nationalities and cultures. After growing up and also largely associating different races with wealth disparities, I am just now truly wrapping my head around the concept that not all white people are wealthy. Now, I have another realization to confront.
4. The pros and cons of inflating the connection between economics and race relations. Truthfully, I think many people are simply more comfortable addressing issues of injustice along class and economic lines than along racial and/or cultural ones. I think it sounds better to say that we need to help the poor than it does to say that we need to be tolerant of one another’s differences. I absolutely agree that there is a major connection between social relations and economics and class, but I also know that even wealthy Black people still suffer from many of the societal challenges that come with Blackness. In response to a question about what he wishes other less progressive people would realize, one of my friends said that “we’re really not that different at all.” In theory, I understand that. We are all human. We are all more alike than we are different. Yet, I would really like for society to get to a point where it embraces the fact that we are all different and that that’s what makes us beautiful. Culture is important. Culture is necessary. It can be prevalent without being threatening or divisive.